The 16th of September, 1999 marked a landmark occasion for Arsenal FC as they kicked their first ball in Europe’s elite club competition, drawing 1-1 against French club RC Lens, with Marc Overmars writing himself into the history books, scoring the Gunners first ever goal.
For 15 of the next 16 seasons the north London club would grace the Champions League and are now preparing for their 14th consecutive continental campaign. As you would expect, they’ve played their part in some iconic moments, including beating European heavyweights Inter Milan and Real Madrid on their own patch and narrowly losing to Barcelona in the 2006 final.
That night at the San Siro in November 2003, when Thierry Henry singlehandedly demolished Inter, will live long in the memory as the Frenchman proved exactly why he was the best player in the world at the time. The Italians had eased to a 3-0 victory at Highbury two months earlier, but had no idea of the backlash awaiting them in their own backyard.
No one could have predicted Arsenal would run out 5-1 winners and that Henry would score one of their greatest goals in Champions League history. Latching onto Ray Parlour’s header on the half-way line, the Gunners’ talisman displayed the pace and ferocity that made him one of the world’s most feared marksmen, bursting into the Inter penalty area and smashing a left foot shot past Francesco Toldo and in off the far post.
Three years later he did it again, this time in the Spanish capital, parting the Madrid defence with a stunning solo goal that gave a young Arsenal side crippled with injury the accolade of becoming the first English team to emerge victorious from the Santiago Bernabeu.
Individual triumphs are a recurring theme of their Champions League narrative and Jens Lehmann is one name that will be etched into the archives till the end of time. The German wasn’t everyone’s first choice to replace the legendary David Seaman but his performance in the 2006 semi-final against Villarreal finally saw him win over the crowd.
Having drawn 1-1 in the first leg, Arsenal clung on for dear life in the return, with Lehmann keeping the Spaniards at bay with a string of superb saves. But when Gael Clichy fouled Jose Mari in the penalty area, all hope seemed to be lost. But the Gunners’ goalkeeper saved his best until last, keeping out Juan Roman Riquelme’s spot-kick to book a place in the final.
Sadly Lehmann managed only 17 minutes of the match in Paris, receiving a straight red card after fouling Samuel Eto’o. It didn’t deter Arsenal, who took the lead through Sol Campbell in the first half but couldn’t hold on and were finally beaten by two Barca goals in 13 heartbreaking minutes.
They would get their revenge just under five years later, playing the Catalan giants off the park at the Emirates Stadium. Andriy Arshavin was the hero on this occasion, slamming home the winning goal seven minutes from time to cap a famous victory for Arsenal against the odds.
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